Archive for Hobson's Choice

Sub Standard

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 21, 2021 by dcairns

ABOVE US THE WAVES ought to be terrifying — I can’t think of anything much more unpleasant than working in a midget submarine. Ralph Thomas, unfortunately, isn’t a great director. He’s what’s usually called “efficient,” meaning lacking in imagination, but he’s not that efficient really at all.

Things are so primitive the men have to get into their diving suits THROUGH THE NECK-HOLE

John Mills is the officer trying to get the go-ahead for the mission, using these untested subs. He impresses admiral James Robertson Justice by proving his subs can sneak through security to plant a dummy mine on Justice’s own ship. But the men involved are taken ill afterwards…

The script, by Robin EYE OF THE DEVIL Estridge, doesn’t make it clear what’s wrong with the men. I’m assuming it’s “the bends” but I don’t see any advantage in muddling this. Anyhow, just after Mills gets this bad news, he gives the men the good news — Justice is impressed and the mission is on.

Incredibly, Thomas doesn’t show the reaction of the sick men. Of course, we don’t know what he was up against — losing the light, maybe. But I’d argue that if he only had time to cover this passage in one way, he’s chosen the wrong angle to focus on, favouring the guy giving out information rather than the guys reacting to it. Of course he had a star to keep happy… but a generally affable one, by all accounts. Mills had been happy for David Lean to play a love scene on his and Brenda de Banzie’s backs in HOBSON’S CHOICE.

Actually, looking at it again, there’s a shot favouring the afflicted men, so it wasn’t a problem of time. It’s been decided that they’re to be unconscious. But I think that’s a mistake. Since the decision has been made to announce that the men are going to be OK in this very scene, rather than get any suspense out of their condition, the emotion should come from them being somewhat conscious and reacting happily to the good news. A scriptwriting issue rather than being Thomas’s fault as director. The script does play as a lot of information being doled out, for much of the runtime. The kind of business where a man with a pointer points at a map or plan and says “…here, here and here.”

AUTW does pick up tremendously towards the climax, though. Faking up the close-quarters stuff inside the subs forces Thomas to get atmospheric, and the tense situations go well with his “efficient” approach.

ABOVE US THE WAVES stars Willie Mossop; James Ignatius Rooney; Donald Nordley; Lord Scrumptious; Martin Teckman; Reldresal; Sorren; Zoltan Karpathy; Richard Wagner; General Gogol; Chairman J. Bruce Ismay; and Heironymous Merkin.

Mossop

Posted in Fashion, FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2021 by dcairns

John Mills’ excellent turn as Willie Mossop in HOBSON’S CHOICE is a terrific bit of physical acting and character design. He has two hairstyles, one of which is spectacularly disfiguring — both of which seem to be real, so they must have shot the later scenes first, before barbering him into grotesquerie.

Mills’ other uglified role is in RYAN’S DAUGHTER, where he’s just hideous. Strange to think he won an Oscar for it — if he’d repeated his Early Mossop performance in that context it would have been too much — instead, he goes even further, beyond Mr. Laughton’s Quasimodo. I guess it’s an interesting choice to make the “village idiot” uncharming and unphotogenic, where such characters are usually sentimentalized, but Mills’ choices plunge him into the unpleasant domain of caricaturing the afflicted, an error of judgement, to put it mildly, that lands him in the same camp as Alec Guinness’ whole look in OLIVER TWIST (a film made three years after the Holocaust, if you need reminding).

Mossop, on the other hand, is a wonderful creation. Any discomfort felt about laughing at this ill-educated and ill-dressed man is joyously dissipated as the film shows him blossoming in confidence and erudition, a Galatea sculpted by his partner Maggie (Brenda de Banzie, also wonderful).

Costume designer John Armstrong has collaborated with the actor to subtly deform and distort his trim chorus boy’s body. A little pot belly has been added — I assume it’s prosthetic. The trousers hang in a strange manner, suggesting scrawniness and waste beneath, as well as an ill fit.

Mills enhances the effect by doing a lot of QUALITY ass-work: he sticks out his backside to suggest poor posture rather than pugilistic sauciness, and this seems to do unwelcome things to the clothing. There’s a perfect storm in those trousers — pants and stance in total disharmony.

Kevin Brownlow’s magisterial book David Lean tells us that originally, Robert Donat was cast, and had to shoot a test to convince himself he could do it. He went down the trap door a prematurely aged asthmatic, then came up as Willie Mossop. But he failed the medical, the stress bringing on an attack of wheezing. (Movie medicals, made to satisfy the insurance people, were generally a bit lax. Roy Kinnear said of PIRATES, “A number of us were quite long in the tooth. We all had to do a physical examination. You went in a room and got on a couch, and you could manage that, you were in.”)

Losing his co-lead days before the shoot, Lean had to deal with a rebellious Laughton, who felt betrayed — Korda basically blackmailed him into doing it — “If you go to the scandal sheets, so will I.” Which is… wow. But it certainly helped Lean that his producer was prepared to play the bad guy. Lean and Laughton then enjoyed a good relationship. Lean recalled Mills, on a boat outing, feigning seasickness, and realised what a good physical comic he was. He had imagined Mossop as hulking, but the physical contrast between Mills and Laughton plays brilliantly: Lorre and Greenstreet in Lancashire.

Original author Harold Brighouse wasn’t heavily involved in the film version, but he did advise Lean that he could play the wedding night scene where Mossop tremulously prepares for bed “as long as you like” and it would bring the house down. As with LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and Omar Sharif’s long approach, Lean lost his nerve, as he put it, and so Mossop’s preparations are truncated by an awkward dissolve. If only he’d test screened it… that kind of thing can give confidence as well as shatter it. He was able to go back and extend Sharif’s approach for the LAWRENCE restoration, but alas HOBSON’S never got that treatment and no doubt the footage was swiftly disposed of.

But still… HOBSON’S is a fascinating case of the duties of a main character being split among three superb players. Laughton brings the lion’s share of the entertainment, a bumptious and sodden Lear, but he never learns anything, he’s simply reduced in power until his mean spirits can’t hurt anyone. De Banzie’s Maggie is the hero who makes things happen — a bit of fancy footwork by Brighouse allows her to triumph due to a complete accident — Hobson falling down a hole — that she could never have anticipated. But she’s unchanging. Mossop is manipulated and coerced every step of the way, a character lacking any form of proactive self-determination, but he’s the one with the arc — more than his circumstances change, he grows in stature and becomes master of the house, albeit one put in that position and kept there by a strong woman who is the real power in the relationship. Mossop knows he’s a mere figurehead, but Maggie gives him confidence at every turn by praising his skill as shoemaker. I’ve seen productions of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW where they’ve tried to make Kate and Petrucchio partners in a role-playing game put on for the benefit of society, but I don’t think you can make that entirely convince as Shakespeare’s intent, but Brighouse was a suffragist and the feminist underpinnings of his play are strikingly modern (see also Stanley Houghton’s oft-filmed HINDLE WAKES) — Maggie and Willie agree to play the roles of strong man and supportive wife, while both know that the reality is more the other way around.

Anyway — we raise our glasses to John Mills and Willie Mossop. He may never have gotten another role like it, but it opened up the range of parts he could be considered for and gave him a new lease of screen life, which he certainly ran with.

Next must-see Millses are ICE-COLD IN ALEX and TUNES OF GLORY.

Laughton eats cake

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on April 6, 2021 by dcairns

… while hungover. In HOBSON’S CHOICE.

Even funnier than him smoking his first cigarette in THIS LAND IS MINE. You can see why David Lean liked him — even though the grumpy director — “Actors can be rather a bore” — and the tricky actor would seem like a match made in hell, on paper. Lean even wanted to cast Laughton in the Guinness part in KWAI, imagining that with a bit of a diet Laughton could play a starving POW. Eventually he realised that if Laughton could will himself to look thin for a part, he would have already done so for real life.

Laughton’s drunk scene — chasing reflections of the moon in the puddles of a cobbled street — is rightly celebrated, and hits some moments of weirdness comparable to THE SMALL BACK ROOM’s giant whisky bottle. Especially when Laughton falls down a hatch in the street, an effect achieved with rear projection, I think, and Laughton moving in extreme slomo, with the length of the drop expressionistically exaggerated.

And then there’s the “liver attack” — a would-be comic version of the DTs that Fiona declared to be the most terrifying scene Lean ever filmed. Number one in a crowded field, if you think about it.

I actually put the film on to convince Fiona of John Mills’ brilliance as an actor, a mission which was successful, but here I am talking about Laughton of course because it’s easier to do. Follow-up post?